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State Encroachment on Civil Society? A Comparative Study of Parties, Interest Groups and Welfare-Providing Organizations in Contemporary Democracies

State regulation of civil society has grown consistently over the past decade, raising concerns over the eroding role of the latter in shaping democratic decision-making. The ERC-funded STATORG project has investigated this issue across several long-lived democracies, considering country-specific regulations and how these affect civil society organisations.

Published in 2018, ‘The State and Civil Society’ provides an unprecedented look into the origins of constraining civil society legislation. Sure, this question had been tormenting researchers for a while, as they tried to find out whether and how democratic governments actually constrain civil society organisations. But so far, their research has been mostly fragmented.

The crucialness of civil society

“This issue had not yet been considered across a wide range of long-lived democracies while considering legislation applicable to different types of organisations,” says Nicole Bolleyer, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Exeter. “With democracy being in crisis all over Europe and many people disengaging from politics, the capacity of civil society organisations to link citizens to state institutions is crucial. And so is the question of how the state itself – by making certain legal choices – intentionally or unintentionally affects this ability.”

Looking at the countless political parties, interest groups and public benefit organisations in Europe, one could be forgiven for thinking that civil society has never been so influential. But behind the scenes, growing state regulation – reinforced in countries facing the threat of terrorism and growing populism – has contributed to the so-called ‘shrinking space problem for civil society’ recently highlighted by the EU, the Council of Europe and various NGOs.

STATORG (State Encroachment on Civil Society? A Comparative Study of Parties, Interest Groups and Welfare-Providing Organizations in Contemporary Democracies) particularly focuses on the claim that increased civil society dependency on state finance and regulation has negative repercussions on organisations’ internal functioning and activities. The project team examined the nature of legislation in 19 long-lived democracies and assessed their consequences on the likes of parties, interest groups and public benefit organisations. They did so by conducting large-scale surveys in four European democracies, generating data on over 3 200 of these organisations.

Key project findings exposed

Project findings so far are split in two. “First, we found that ‘systemic’ tendencies towards adopting more constraining or more permissive regulation depend on countries’ legal and welfare-state traditions as well as democratic history. This is in line with existing literature on state traditions and policy styles that stress the similarities of legal regulation in different domains while challenging research that to date has evolved in separate subfields specialising in party law or charity law, respectively,” says Prof. Bolleyer.

“Then, our findings on the consequences of different forms of state-society relations for organisations themselves are actually more differentiated than initially expected. For instance, we found that being strongly dependent on state funding is associated with members of an organisation being less involved in internal activities. However, this was not associated with lower member control over internal decision-making as often suggested. Meanwhile, access to state funding makes organisations feel more secure and less under stress. Hence, the effects of state regulation are not necessarily negative.”

The finding that central systemic factors such as legal and welfare-state traditions, along with countries’ democratic history, do shape their propensity to adopt constraining civil society legislation also has important repercussions: “It implies that different democracies, depending on historically grown dispositions, are more or less resilient towards eroding civil society space when exposed to pressures such as terrorism, populism or austerity that increasingly invite more restrictive legislation,” Prof. Bolleyer explains.

Once the project is completed, Prof. Bolleyer hopes its results will inform future legal choices. In the meantime, the analysis of the STATORG survey data is still ongoing, exploring aspects such as the role of professional staff within organisations and their concerns over state funding.

Reference source: State Encroachment on Civil Society? A Comparative Study of Parties, Interest Groups and Welfare-Providing Organizations in Contemporary Democracies

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